It has been said that New York City is the capital of the world. Whether attracted by its plethora of fine arts institutions and performance spaces, its internationally renowned street culture, its smattering of colleges or its myriad of colorful subcultures, artists of all sorts and mediums are drawn daily to the bright lights of the big city. Said simply, if you cannot find inspiration on the streets of New York, you won’t find it anywhere.
Across the Hudson, crouched awkwardly in the shadow of its superstar sister is Newark, New Jersey. Though it holds the distinction of being one of the nation’s major air, shipping, and rail hubs as well as having one of the most beloved American mayors in recent history, its accomplishments always seem to be dwarfed by those of its bigger, stronger, faster sibling. As the bookish little brother of an older sister that perfected the fine art of being pretty and popular, I can relate all too well with Newark’s plight of playing second fiddle.
Thankfully, I moved to Newark at the very moment that I began to articulate my political voice and actualize my artistic vision. Its strong working class communities and its legacy of transformative rebellions were relentlessly seductive to me, given my family’s background and my scholarly interests in people’s movements. Its motley mix of late 19th century mansions and raucous graffiti culture coalesced in a hypnotic charm that called out to me directly and insistently, demanding that I plunge myself into the process of capturing it all.
And capture it I would. The day I packed up the contents of my impeccably decorated office in the English department at Rutgers-Newark would mark my (temporary?) departure from the pursuit of a tenure-track appointment at one of the nation’s top literature programs. The masters-level students I’d been teaching were a joy. Presenting my research at conferences and academic panels was a dream come true. Following in the footsteps of my idol-turned-mentor Cornel West seemed not only doable, but inevitable. As a doctoral candidate at Princeton, there appeared to be few impediments to my gliding comfortably into a stable life in the upper echelons of the professoriate. And then there was Newark.
The Big Apple’s little brother the stood erect, calling out to me with its rich history, its tough reputation and its architectural marvels. The fall of Sharpe James and the meteoric rise of Cory Booker played out like an epic saga, as the razing of project tenements across the city and the emergence of luxury buildings like Eleven80 Raymond made so many of us feel like we were witnessing an avalanche of unfathomable historic significance. For the first time since the riots of 1967, the city seemed poised for a monumental comeback.
But history is never quite that clean or that simple. Narratives about urban centers use phrases like “actualizing their potential” as a means of sidestepping terms like “gentrification.” As I’d learned in my hometown, New Brunswick, “urban renewal” is often the term that City Hall and its developer cronies prefer to the unpretty “displacing poor and working-class citizens”. Having come from a working-class family and watched as New Brunswick was transformed from my mom-and-pop stomping grounds into an unrecognizable college town and healthcare hub, I had some idea where my allegiances would fall. But when I attended the New Jersey Historical Society’s groundbreaking exhibition “What’s Going On? Newark and the Legacy of the 60s” and saw firsthand the statistics illustrating how millennial Newark had as many families living beneath the poverty line than in the 60s or 70s and higher levels of unemployment, my mind was made up.
Three years deep in a love affair with Brick City, I found myself vexed. I wanted desperately for the city to shake off its reputation for drug trafficking and violent crime. I wanted safer streets and development plans that eradicated the uninhabitable structures that peppered my neighborhood. At the same time, everything from politically conscious graffiti to the work of local scholars and historians impressed upon me the need to pose some very incisive questions about the stakes of the city’s vision for “renewal” and how much the 60s had truly taught us about the importance of recognizing and prioritizing the needs of its poor and working class citizens.
The only question was – what could I do? As a scholar of the humanities with absolutely no aspirations toward public office, how could I contribute to the discourse about the relationship between the city’s bright future and its troubled past? The answer to that question becomes clearer each day. What follows is an account of the sites, sounds and struggles that have illuminated (and complicated) the journey.